Apr 192007

Often you discover conflicting facts for an event, like a birth date. A particular source may give only partial information, like the place of birth but not the date, or the month and year but not the day or place. Soon you have a list of multiple alternate facts, each cited by a different source.

A “preferred” fact is a best estimate. It may include information from a combination of alternate facts. A single preferred fact is often used in genealogical reports and charts, where listing several alternate facts is infeasible.

For some facts, it is not a matter of having several conflicting facts from alternate sources. Sometimes you must draw inferences from several sources to form a conclusion. Suppose you have a hunch that a particular person is your ancestor. If you evaluate several sources, you may find proof to a reasonable degree of certainty that your hunch is correct. In other words you may be able draw a conclusion even though there are no explicit facts that prove it.

As an example, marriage records often list witnesses, their ages, and their relationship to the bride or groom. Evaluating the marriage records of two sisters may lead you to conclude that one of the witnesses who appears on both records is actually their brother. The age and hometown of this witness may lead you to conclude he is indeed your ancestor.

Therefore, besides citing individual sources for a given fact, you can also cite a conclusion. Simply document the steps that led to your conclusion, and name that as your source. Future researchers can then see your logic and verify it against your sources, and any new sources that may be discovered.

Apr 062007

With genealogical evidence, you should not trust any one source to be accurate. I contend that even a preponderance of the evidence is not necessarily accurate. Researchers often look for corroborating evidence from other sources before accepting a fact as true. Various sources have different weights as to their trustworthiness and accuracy. But it can still be a mistake to draw a conclusion based on a given set of sources.

For instance someone’s date of birth taken from their death certificate has a greater chance of being incorrect since their birth happened so many years beforehand. The person filling out the death certificate may only be guessing the deceased’s birth date. The birth date is seldom verified with other official records when the death certificate is filed.

Birth certificates are considered more accurate because they are recorded soon after birth, when everyone involved is sure when it happened. However a clerk generally recorded births in a ledger book. Sometimes these ledgers were themselves re-copied several years later. So even a “birth certificate” is subject to transcription errors and recording mistakes.

Even if a birth record and a death record each point to the same birth date, that date is not necessarily accurate. Two or more inaccurate records do not make an accurate record.

That is why citing a source in genealogical research is so important. You, or a subsequent researcher may happen upon another source in the future that corroborates or refutes a given fact. All sources will again need to be weighed for accuracy before another conclusion can be drawn. Any genealogical fact has an inherent degree of accuracy that is never 100%.